Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: beethoven's emperor

Saturday April 16, 2011
Sunday April 17, 2011

Harbison Gli accordi più usati (“The Most Often Used Chords”)

orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani; percussion; harp; piano/celesta; strings

Dvořák Serenade in E major for Strings, Op. 22

orchestration: strings

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, “Emperor”

orchestration: solo piano; 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani; strings

Inspiration can strike at any moment. It can come during the heat of battle or in the quiet of a peaceful mind. Inspiration can even come from fortunate chance. The sources of inspiration for the three pieces on tonight’s program are as varied as the circumstances of each composition. An accidental discovery led to John Harbison’s Gli accordi più usati, Dvořák’s Serenade was written during a period of prosperity and contentment, and Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto was composed in honor of a friend and born during a political conflict.

John Harbison is a towering figure in art music today. Pulitzer Prize winner and recipient of the coveted MacArthur “genius” grant, Harbison has written some of the most influential work of the last 20 years, including four symphonies, Mirabai Songs for Dawn Upshaw, and the opera The Great Gatsby. His music, although thoughtful and complex, is still accessible to many audiences. In the early 1990s, when LACO commissioned a work from him, Harbison traveled to Italy, and while there purchased a few notebooks for his musical ideas. While using one of the notebooks, Harbison saw that it had a printed chart of often-used chords, “Gli accordi piú usati.” This chart was meant to be used as a reference, but instead Harbison played through the chords in the order they were written out and found the progression pleasing to the ear, noting that the chords in the chart were not the ones most used in his own music. Harbison experimented with these chords, at one point constructing a passacaglia, a repeated bass line pattern, drawing from the text in the notebook. When the work was completed, Harbison dedicated Gli accordi più usati to LACO and Christof Perick, the music director at the time.

There are four sections in the piece, Toccata, Variazioni, Ciaccona and Finale. The first three movements take their names from musical forms popular in the Baroque period. A toccata (the name comes from the Italian word meaning “to touch”) is a solo work meant to show off a player’s virtuosity. Sometimes a composer might include imitative themes, but the main point of a toccata is to display the player’s fast-moving and accurate fingers. Harbison’s Toccata movement is based on scales and modes. The title of the second movement, Variazioni, refers to the practice of presenting a musical tune and then embellishing and adding to the tune in an increasingly complex set of variations; Harbison’s movement has four variations. The third movement, Ciaccona, features a repeated pattern that Harbison fashioned from the ten most commonly used chords. A Ciaccona, or “chaconne,” is a repeated harmonic progression that creates the foundation for a piece. Harbison composed a melody over the pattern which he says “presses to break free of the ground, to spin forward in historical time.” This friction causes some musical tension which then dissipates when the pattern and melody work together again. Harbison’s Finale is based on the Circle of Fifths, a theoretical arrangement of the major and minor keys. It also refers to two other tables Harbison found in his notebook: the Table of Contracting Note Values and the Table of Expanding Intervals. It is interesting to see how creatively Harbsion creates themes out of raw data, and how he translates the text of the notebook from dry theoretical jargon to music.

The life of a composer is not always an easy one. Some composers languish in poverty as they dedicate themselves to an art that is oftentimes unappreciated—or possibly even unheard—by the public. Like every human being, a composer’s life may be touched by tragedy or indifference, but every once in a while the stars align and all goes well. It is interesting to see what kind of music a composer produces in these fortunate times. The year 1875 was one of these fortunate times for Antonín Dvořák. He was a new husband, a new father and a composer whose work was just beginning to be noticed. The money he received from commissions provided a stable income for his new family. Free from financial worry, Dvořák produced an opera, Vanda, his Fifth Symphony and his first Piano Trio. In addition, he produced the Serenade in E major for Strings, Op. 22.

Although Dvořák composed the work in less than two weeks in May of 1875, the Serenade was not premiered until December of 1876. Many have remarked about the good feeling that pervades this work, which perhaps can be traced back to Dvořák’s contented state of mind at its time of composition. The Serenade’s first movement begins with a very pleasing lyrical moderato; the middle contrasting section features a dancelike dotted rhythm, but soon the original lyrical theme returns. The second movement, Tempo di Valse, epitomizes the term “lilting.” The minor key interjects a bittersweet melancholy into the music, but there is a seamless transition to a bright and lively second theme. The middle section of this movement, which is in a major key, is interrupted by dramatic tremors, but we are never far from the courtly dance of the opening. The third movement, the Scherzo, forms the centerpiece of this five-movement work. Dvořák introduces the main theme and then explores variations of the vivacious theme each time it returns. The fourth movement is a slow, melodious moment of rest between the frenetic scherzo and the vibrant finale, but even in its serenity the movement is not devoid of passion. Dvořák quotes from the thematic material of the second movement, although not the main waltz music. The finale is a lively Bohemian dance. In the course of the movement, Dvořák revisits themes from the previous movements, and the return of earlier musical ideas gives the entire piece a sense of connectedness. The five-movement work is almost unfailingly charming, and Dvořák displays dynamic and mood variations throughout. The Serenade retains a courtly sophistication, with moments of folk and dance traditions in the finale.

Although we often think of Beethoven as a renegade, following only his own artistic instincts, there were times when even he was practical. Practicality sometimes inspired Beethoven to compose a work and dedicate it to someone who could help his career. There were also times when he composed to create showpieces for his own performances. Beethoven did not compose Piano Concerto No. 5 to further his career as a performer, because despite having played the premieres of all four of his previous concertos, by 1808 his deafness had made public performance impossible. Instead of intending to impress a new patron, Beethoven meant the so-called “Emperor” Concerto as a present for Archduke Rudolf, who had started out as a student and patron, but eventually became a close friend. Archduke Rudolf had been the dedicatee of a number of Beethoven’s works including the Grosse Fuge, the Triple Concerto, the Missa Solemnis and of course the “Archduke” Trio. Unlike Dvořák’s Serenade, this work was not born into serenity or contentment. Napoleon’s occupation of Vienna in 1809 created quite a tumultuous environment, but there is little trace of this disturbance in the work.

Beethoven began work on Piano Concerto No. 5 in 1808, around the time he composed the Fifth Symphony and the “Pastoral” Symphony. We call this concerto the “Emperor” not because Beethoven gave it such a title but because Johann Baptist Cramer, renowned pianist and publisher, thought perhaps that the nickname would help the piece sell better, or perhaps because the work exudes a regal mood. The “Emperor” concerto uses the standard three-movement form, but within these movements Beethoven often subverts the listener’s expectations. For example, Beethoven includes short improvisatory interjections by the soloist, almost like miniature cadenzas, in the first movement. The musical material of the two orchestral themes might seem, on paper, to be quite simple, but in performance they are truly majestic. There is also a third theme for the soloist, something unusual for the concertos of the time, but not for Beethoven. The mood of the work is decidedly vivacious and excited, with moments of pure ceremony.

The middle movement, marked Adagio un poco mosso, is calm and serene. The strings play a beautiful theme that is complemented by the piano’s opening melody. There is an upward striving in this movement that is achingly lovely. The section of piano melody accompanied by pizzicato pulses in the strings is as delicate as lace, while the winds bring color to the music. The last movement is a rondo, which was a common form for the final movement of a work such as this. In a rondo, the main theme returns over and over again, interspersed between sections of new music. Here, the movement opens with the lively main theme in the piano, which is echoed by the orchestra. There is then an extended solo passage in the middle section that leads back to the opening theme. The ebullient main theme injects a feeling of triumph every time it appears, and both the movement and the piece end in a joyful mood. Everything from the musical themes and the connective transformations between them to the flourishes in the solo part make the epithet “Emperor” seem exceedingly appropriate, even if Beethoven never intended it.

–Christine Gengaro, PhD

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